Leon Redbone, the singer who built a career out of performing ragtime, vaudeville and American standards with a sly wink and an unmistakable, nasally voice, died Thursday. He was 69.
A statement on Redbone’s website confirmed his death, though it did so with a sweet bit of humor and joking that he was actually 127 years old.
“He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover and a simple tip of his hat,” his family said in a statement. “He’s interested to see what Blind Blake, Emmett and Jelly Roll have been up to in his absence, and has plans for a rousing singalong number with Sári Barabás. An eternity of pouring through texts in the Library of Ashurbanipal will be a welcome repose, perhaps followed by a shot or two of whiskey with Lee Morse, and some long overdue discussions with his favorite Uncle, Suppiluliuma I of the Hittites. To his fans, friends and loving family who have already been missing him so in this realm he says, ‘Oh behave yourselves. Thank you… and good evening everybody.'”
Often clad in a Panama hat and big, dark sunglasses, Redbone rose to prominence in the mid-Seventies, though he always had an air of mystery about him, famously refusing to answer questions about his age and background. He was reportedly born in Cyprus, but moved to Canada in the Sixties and began performing in Toronto nightclubs. He eventually hit the folk festival circuit, which is how he met Bob Dylan, who praised Redbone’s enigmatic aura in a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone.
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“Leon interests me,” Dylan said. “I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been [a foot and a half from him] and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.”
Redbone kept things characteristically strange when Rolling Stone profiled him several months later. When asked if his parents were musicians, Redbone joked that his father was the long-dead Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini and his mother was the 19th century Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind. When asked where the first place he ever played publicly was, Redbone threw on a W.C. Fields voice and cracked, “In a pool hall, but I wasn’t playing guitar, you see. I was playing pool.”
“The remarkable thing about Leon Redbone is that he’s so accurate in every aspect of his presentation – from his scat singing to his yodeling to his authentic nasally slurred vocals to the unerring accuracy of his Blind Blake-styled , ragtime-piano type of guitar playing,” Rolling Stone writer Steve Weitzman wrote in 1974.
Redbone soon notched a record deal with Warner Bros and released his debut album, On the Track, in 1975. The album offered up endearing takes on classics like “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Lazybones” and “Some of These Days.” He would release two more albums on Warner, 1977’s Double Time and 1978’s Champagne Charlie. His 1981 album, From Branch to Branch (released via Atlantic) featured his sole Hot 100 hit, a rendition of Gary Tigerman’s “Seduced.”
Though Redbone never achieved huge commercial success, he developed a cult following thanks in part to frequent appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He also appeared in commercials for companies like Budweiser, Chevrolet, All laundry detergent and Ken-L Ration dog food, and sang the theme songs for Mr. Belvedere and Harry and the Hendersons.
Redbone continued to tour and record albums throughout the Eighties and Nineties, though his output slowed as he got older. In the 2003 film, Elf, he voiced Leon the Snowman and recorded a rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Zooey Deschanel that played over the film’s closing credits.
Redbone released his final studio album, Flying By, in 2014, and announced his retirement from music due to health concerns a year later. In 2015, Third Man Records issued a double-album compilation, A Long Way Home, that collected Redbone’s live and studio solo recordings, dating back to 1972.
“He’s just amazing,” Bonnie Raitt said of Redbone in 1974 before nodding to his enigmatic past. “He’s probably the best combination singer-guitarist I’ve heard in years. I’d like to know where he gets his stuff. I’d also like to find out how old he is.”